Imagine: John Lennon (1988)
By ALLAN KOZINN
Published: October 2, 1988
''We were out to create a balanced portrait of John Lennon, not an idealized vision of St. John of Liverpool,'' says the director Andrew Solt of his documentary, ''Imagine: John Lennon,'' which opens Friday. ''John Lennon had an edge to him, and we show that, along with many other facets of his personality that were captured on film over the years.
''We were out to create a balanced portrait of John Lennon, not an idealized vision of St. John of Liverpool,'' says the director Andrew Solt of his documentary, ''Imagine: John Lennon,'' which opens Friday. ''John Lennon had an edge to him, and we show that, along with many other facets of his personality that were captured on film over the years. Lately, it has been suggested that we as a generation have been duped - that Lennon's life was just one incredible public relations scam. That has become an underlying question. Our film leaves it to the audience to decide who the real John Lennon was.''
The Warner Brothers film, which was co-produced by Mr. Solt and David L. Wolper (the two also collaborated on ''This Is Elvis''), and written by Mr. Solt and Sam Egan, took nearly two years, and about $7 million, to make. And it is part of a marketing package that includes a couple of lavish tie-ins, including a 255-page $39.95 coffee-table book, published by Macmillan, and a soundtrack album from Capitol Records.
While ''Imagine'' joins a flock of documentaries and films made about the Beatles and Lennon since the songwriter's death in 1980, a number of things set it apart. Most strikingly, it includes a good deal of previously unseen footage, much of it from a private archive tended by Lennon's widow, Yoko Ono, who supplied most of the 240 hours of film and videotape from which the film was assembled. Since some of this film captures recording and rehearsal sessions, and because Ms. Ono also gave the producers some of her husband's unreleased audio tape, many of the songs on the soundtrack are heard in working versions or unreleased alternate takes.
In fact, collectors intent on completeness will have to wait for the film's home video release - expected in six months to a year - to acquire these, since the versions on the soundtrack album are, with a few exceptions, the standard, previously released ones, not those heard in the film.
Another unusual aspect of the film is that Lennon serves as its narrator. In ''This Is Elvis,'' Mr. Wolper and Mr. Solt tied together documentary footage with a script read by a Presley soundalike - an approach that, they admit, was widely criticized. But because Lennon gave so many long, detailed autobiographical interviews to journalists who taped them, either for later publication or for broadcast, it was possible to have him tell his story himself.
''That was a decision we made early on,'' Mr. Solt says. ''We thought that giving a third-person voice to the film would be very heavy-handed, and that in any case having a narrator might grow stale. And since we were blessed with dozens of hours of interviews - including nearly 40 hours taped in the few weeks before his death, during which John looks back over his entire life - letting John speak for himself seemed to us to be the only way to go. Sam Egan and I transcribed every word he said on tape. Then we wove together his answers to the questions about his life we felt were necessary to the flow of the narrative. So John tells his story in his own words, in the first person.''
Lennon's is not, however, the only perspective offered in the film. There are brief interviews with Ms. Ono, as well as with Mimi Smith, the aunt who raised him; his first wife, Cynthia; his sons, Julian and Sean; Elliot Mintz, a friend of the Lennons during the 1970's (and now Ms. Ono's publicist); May Pang, Lennon's girlfriend during his estrangement from Ms. Ono in 1973 and 1974; and George Martin, the Beatles' record producer, who also oversaw the mixing of the film's soundtrack.
Also included are a couple of debates between Lennon and his critics. One is with the cartoonist Al Capp, who offered a derisive assessment of the Lennons' Montreal ''Bed-In'' peace protest, in 1969, and whom Lennon was unable to convince. Another is a discussion, later the same year, with Gloria Emerson, a New York Times reporter who takes the 29-year-old rock star to task for the self-defeating immaturity of his returning his Member of the British Empire medal for the combination of reasons he cited: ''in protest of the Nigeria-Biafra thing, against our support of America in Vietnam, and against 'Cold Turkey' slipping down the charts.''
''I don't feel the film is in any way a whitewash,'' says Ms. Ono, who initiated the project, but had no hand in its completion apart from selling the producers the rights to her film and sitting for an interview. ''I first had the idea in 1984. Around then, several books about John came out that were pretty trashy, and people had a lot of suggestions - that I leave New York, or sue the authors or write a book of my own.
''I didn't want to run away, because I hadn't done anything wrong. The legal route wasn't what I wanted to do. And I thought that if I wrote a book, it would be defensive; and I didn't want to do it that way. So I came up with the idea of doing a documentary film, as a way of counterbalancing all this negative stuff with a look at what John was really about.
''There were a few ways I could have gone,'' she adds. ''One would be to make a very artsy, specialized documentary about a songwriter's life that would have ended up on public television. But I thought it would be better to do something that would circulate on a grander scale. Because John was not just a brilliant songwriter. He had a social impact that was very large. So I began thinking about film producers who worked on a large scale, and one who occurred to me was David Wolper - not so much because he had made a film about Elvis Presley, but because of his work on the [ 1984 ] Olympics, and the Statue of Liberty celebration.''
Ms. Ono approached Mr. Wolper in 1986. ''I told her two things,'' the 60-year-old producer recalls. ''One was that I'm not an expert on John Lennon - Frank Sinatra was my man - but that I had made about 400 documentary films, and to be very honest, I wasn't an expert on all those subjects. I'm an expert at making documentaries.
''The second thing was that if I were to make the film, she could not be involved and could not have a right of approval. In my experience, when you give someone an approval, the film never gets done. I had been told that Yoko could be difficult, but she immediately agreed. She said, 'You're right. I thought about doing it myself, but I could never be objective. That's why I called you. I need someone I can't push around.' ''
Mr. Wolper took the project to Mr. Solt, who had tried unsuccessfully to get a Lennon documentary off the ground a few years earlier, and who had made fleeting contact with Lennon in 1978, when he tried to enlist Lennon as the host of his ''Heroes of Rock and Roll,'' a televised rock documentary. Unlike Mr. Wolper, Mr. Solt, who is 40, grew up during the Beatles era and knew the subject well. He also had an idea of how much footage there was and was aware that Lennon was rumored to have filmed or recorded virtually everything he did after 1970.
But neither Mr. Wolper nor Mr. Solt was prepared for the size of the film cache Ms. Ono shipped to their studios in California. ''It was absolutely mind-boggling,'' says Mr. Wolper, whose previous documentaries include ''The Making of the President: 1960,'' ''The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich'' and a 78-program television series called ''Biography.'' ''I would say there is more personal footage on John Lennon than on any other famous person who ever lived. There may be more footage on John F. Kennedy. But it's not footage of Kennedy in bed or talking to his wife. There isn't 12 hours of him playing with his son. I still can't get over it. There were periods when he had a cameraman following him around for weeks.''
Where Ms. Ono's archive was less complete was in the public side of Lennon's life, particularly during the Beatles period. For this material, Mr. Solt searched the files of American and European television stations and went to Apple, the company that controls the Beatles' own film archive.
Even at that, there were audio and video items Mr. Solt knew existed but could not find (for instance, a complete version of the Chicago press conference in which Lennon explained his comment about the Beatles being bigger than Jesus Christ). So one of his assistants, Julian Ludwig, was given the task of approaching private collectors, who searched their own holdings and provided Mr. Ludwig not only with the footage they had, but with leads to other collectors around the country.
Once this trove was assembled, Mr. Solt, Mr. Wolper and Mr. Egan spent a few weeks watching it all and then scrapped the original biographical outline they had mapped out. Instead, they began to focus on the raw footage from a film the Lennons made to accompany the 1971 ''Imagine'' album. ''What we wanted to do at the time,'' Ms. Ono says, ''was make a surrealistic film. Showing John singing was beside the point, so we didn't use much of that.''
Nevertheless, the sessions for the album were filmed virtually complete, as were hours of more informal film - Lennon having lunch with the musicians (George Harrison among them) between sessions or trying to persuade an uninvited and evidently stoned guest that he was merely a songwriter, not the Messiah.
''The footage filmed at Tittenhurst, John's house in England, captures a very important moment in his life,'' Mr. Solt explained, ''an instant when everything was in balance. He was happily married to Yoko. The Beatles had broken up, and he was feeling good about the response to his 'Plastic Ono Band' album. He had installed a recording studio in his home. And he was creating 'Imagine.' He was living a self-contained, creative life.
''That period became the center of our film. We start at Tittenhurst, and we keep flashing back to it as the story of this man evolves from childhood to death. But once we reach 1971 in the chronology, we move forward and don't return. Using this footage as a kind of skeleton allowed us to tell the story in an unpredictable way. After all, many of us know the basic beats of Lennon's life. By moving back and forth between 1971 and the chronology, we were able to convey the elements without the viewer always knowing what would happen next.''
For Lennon fans, the film and its spinoffs come as the latest entries in what is a hot market just now. ''The Lost Lennon Tapes,'' a radio series syndicated by Westwood One, drawing on Ms. Ono's archive of interviews and unreleased audio tapes, has been running weekly since January and was planned to last a year. There is also a new book out by Lennon's half-sister, Julia Baird, describing his childhood and his family background in greater detail than has been reported before. And there is the widely discredited but briskly-selling biography by Albert Goldman, ''The Lives of John Lennon.''
According to Mr. Wolper, ''Imagine'' was not intended as a response to Mr. Goldman's book. But all involved with the film admit that comparisons will be inevitable, and none of them feels particularly bad about that, since much of the previously unseen footage contradicts the image of Lennon that Mr. Goldman projects. What emerges is not the dysfunctional, secluded, anorexic heroin addict Mr. Goldman describes, but an inventive, working musician who was aware of what he was doing and knew how to achieve his aims.
The contention that he was estranged from Yoko and Sean toward the end of his life is also countered by both professional footage and the home movie film from that period.
''We had no special insight into what the Goldman book would contain,'' Mr. Egan says, ''except that we knew it would not be flattering. We don't paint Lennon as a mythical superhero. I think we show him as very human, with foibles and strengths. We also show him as a genius who changed the face of 20th-century culture, and I think that is more important than the sordid details of what his weaknesses may or may not have been.
''Even if every word of Mr. Goldman's book were true - and I don't believe that for a moment - I would still question whether it is a biography of merit, because it ignores the impact this artist made on the rest of us. Our movie is a celebration of that impact.''